Lenin as Philosopher:
The philosophical contributions of Lenin to these debates would not
merit attention, apart from the canonic status his works have since been accorded by communist parties throughout the world. Yet Lenin's writings have assumed an inestimable importance in the development of Marxism as an official dogma. His particular variant of orthodox Marxism has (unfortunately) dominated later Marxist discussions.
Following his teacher Plekhanov, Lenin founded philosophical materialism epistemologically. Man's objective knowledge of the real world was based on sensations, which truly reflected material objects. "For every scientist who has not been led astray by professional philosophy, as well as for every materialist, sensation is indeed the direct connection between consciousness and the external world; it is the transformation of the energy of external excitation into a state of consciousness." Lenin, like Plekhanov, valued practice for the verification it offered of sense-data. He argued that Marx's concept of practice presented "the materialist theory, the theory of the reflection of objects by our mind, with absolute clarity: things exist outside us. Our perception and ideas are their images. Verification of these images, differentiation between true and false images, is given by practice."
However, Lenin soon distinguished himself from Plekhanov by his shrill introduction of party polemics into philosophical discussions. His diatribes against idealism were animated by a conviction that idealism was reactionary, rather than a simply incorrect theory—political reactionaries espoused idealism; therefore it was false. Lenin often seemed most obsessed with the religious delusions idealism allegedly fostered. He categorically denounced religion in a critical approach wholly divergent from Marx's. Marx had remarked that "the religious reflex of the real world can . . . only . . . finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and nature." Lenin however busied himself with detecting dangerous religious ideas within secular philosophy. He valued epistemological materialism as proof positive against any form of transcendentalism that might give comfort to religion. "Once you deny objective reality, given us in sensation, you have already lost every one of your weapons against fideism, for you have slipped into agnosticism or subjectivism—and that is all fideism wants." Here as elsewhere, Lenin conflated metaphysical, epistemological, theological, and political questions.
In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism , Lenin painted a picture of the progressive attainment of empirical truth. He assumed that absolute truth was gradually approximated through the accumulating total of relative truths, each of which reflected accurately an independently existing object. The contribution of dialectics lay in its presentation of the "doctrine of development in its fullest, deepest and most comprehensive form, the doctrine of the relativity of the human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter." For Lenin, "knowledge can be useful biologically, useful in human practice, useful for the preservation of life, for the preservation of the species, only when it reflects an objective truth independent of man."
Lenin did not limit his passive conception of knowledge to the sphere of inanimate objects. The social realm also appeared as an entity entirely divorced from the individual's consciousness of it. Where Marx himself had described conscious and practical individuals, capable of transforming social relations as well as nature through their power of purposeful agency, Lenin insisted that "social being is independent of the social consciousness of man . . . . The highest task of humanity is to comprehend the objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in its generalized fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one's social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible." This orthodox Marxian theme of submission to necessity recurred throughout Lenin's work.
Some of Lenin's writings on organizational and strategic matters seemed nonetheless to contradict the passive implications of the epistemology elaborated in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism . In his dispute with the Russian economists, Lenin insisted on the irreducible importance of politics, ideology, and class consciousness to the development of a revolutionary movement; he presented such "subjective" conditions of revolution as "inseparably bound up with the objective condition" of a developed economic structure. After the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin similarly insisted on the importance of a "cultural revolution" to complement the political and social one; without such a cultural upheaval, there could be no question of achieving socialism.
Lenin indeed took an activist, almost voluntarist, position as to
the role of the Bolshevik Party in organizing the proletariat as a political force. He was hardly content to let events simply take their course, and here he departed sharply from orthodox social democracy. "To say that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction, and in the determination of the path. . . . They fail to understand that the 'ideologist' is worthy of the name only when he precedes the spontaneous evolution with conscious, evolutionary action." Or, as Lenin asked rhetorically in What Is to Be Done ?, "What else is the function of Social Democracy if not to be a 'spirit' . . . raising the movement to the level of its program?"
But what was the substance of the party's spiritual leadership? In what sense did the communist ideologue precede the spontaneous historical movement and "point out the road"? Lenin's discussion of "trade union consciousness" and his invocation of Kautsky make it clear that for him, as for Kautsky, what was at stake was the inability of the workers' movement to achieve science spontaneously. Social democracy had to assume the role of a spirit, because the workers themselves would remain an incoherent mass without the guiding light afforded by socialist intellectuals: "Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without , that is, only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers."
Ironically, Lenin's activist program, rather than wholly contradicting his epistemology, indirectly accorded with it. While Lenin used Kautsky's model of scientific consciousness injected into the class struggle from without for distinctly activist ends, both Lenin and Kautsky treated the proletariat as an inert object which in the first instance lacked any notion of the role cast for it by history, as comprehended by a purely objective socialist science. To paraphrase Lenin, the highest task of the proletariat was to comprehend the objective logic of economic evolution so that it might adapt to it. The vanguard would facilitate this adaptation.
Lenin thus dissolved the unity originally postulated by Marx between a spontaneous socio-historical development and the enlightenment of proletarian interests. The proletariat became a pure object, not only of history, but also of the Communist Party, which
claimed a monopoly on adequate consciousness. If in fact the party leaders were the only persons with a handle on the truth, then "amidst the gloom of autocracy," Lenin felt justified in dismissing "'broad democracy' in party organization" as "nothing more than a useless and harmful toy ."
To be sure, the initiating role a critical consciousness assumed within the vanguard party indicated that, at least for one sector of society, social being was not independent of social consciousness. In this respect, Lenin's posthumously published Philosophical Notebooks , with their clear recognition of the centrality of practice to Hegel's (and Marx's) thought, offered a more consistent underpinning for his theory of practice than Materialism and Empirio-Criticism . Although the notebooks in general did not budge from Lenin's reflection theory of knowledge ("Life gives rise to the brain. Nature is reflected in the human brain."), Hegel's remarks on causality and teleology led Lenin to remark that "man's consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it." While cognition remained for Lenin the "eternal, endless approximation of thought to the object," this reflective relation to nature did "not immediately, not simply" coincide with its object. Such epistemological refinements merely rendered Lenin's schema of history more consistent, however; even the activist side of his theory consigned the great majority, including the working class, to a reified passivity and objectivity, which the enlightened communist vanguard investigated and acted upon.
Despite his commitment to a revolutionary strategy, in short, Lenin in his philosophical writings realized the apotheosis of objectivistic Marxism . To his passive epistemology and contempt for democracy corresponded an unannounced eclipse of individual emancipation as a central goal of communism. As Lenin's quip after the revolution that "communism equals soviets plus electrification" implied, communism in Russia came to mean a technical reorganization and modernization of society, rather than a basic transformation abolishing the domination of man by man and of things over men. It was a development presaged by earlier orthodox Marxists. Kautsky's widely read explanation of the Erfurt Program, written in 1892, for example, contained no explicit reference to individual emancipation as a goal in its chapter on "The Commonwealth of the Future." Kautsky instead dwelled on the economic
reorganization of society that would enable the "socialist commonwealth" to "outshine in moral greatness and material wellbeing the most glorious society [Greece] that history has thus far known." Here as elsewhere, Lenin summarized theoretically the movement of orthodox Marxism . Thanks to his unwavering practical commitment, he also established it in power.